The recession in Ireland is officially over! This week the girls and boys over at St James’s Gate brewery, Dublin announced that for the first time in six years Irish sales of Guinness have seen an increase (for the second half of 2014). It’s meager enough growth (only one per cent), but after a stinker of a crisis that lasted the guts of six years and which saw hardened stout drinkers forsake the black stuff and the cosy confines of their local to move onto cheap and nasty takeout from the likes of Lidl and Aldi, any increase in market share is no doubt welcome. The news that prodigal Paddy has returned to the pint of plain serves to confirm along with spiraling house prices and decreasing unemployment that Ireland Inc has clawed its way up out of the quagmire of economic crisis.
The question is: can sales of Guinness be reliably used to track the performance of Ireland’s economy? Is the Guinness Index as sound a marker of growth as GNP, GDP or the ISEQ. There are two answers to this: why the hell not?; and by all means!
To begin with, economist are tricky devils. They’re like the fey but creepy kid from down the road with the thick-as-bottle-end glasses and Little Lord Fauntleroy sandals who would come around to your house when you were young and proceed to kick everyone’s asses at the Game of Life because he could quote by heart rules that nobody else knew existed — but the same guy couldn’t tie his shoe laces or butter a slice of bread if his life depended on it. There’s something of the genius about economists, but also something of the idiot. They might be able to model the behaviour of a certain acronym over time on the basis of the interaction of seven trillion ancillary factors and taking into account inflation, the consumer price index and whether Sagittarius is rising or not, but if you asked them whether the price of cabbage will be up or down come Easter they wouldn’t be able to give you a straight answer (or at least a sequence of words that the man on the street might make sense of).
So, given a choice between hunkering down with the latest ESRI report, going for a chat over a pint with Alan Greenspan or perusing Guinness’s quarterly sales report as a method of divining the performance of the Irish economy, I’m picking the final option. It’s pretty simple, this homespun logic of the Guinness Index: in times of plenty Mikey and Maura Murphy, flush with money, tend to spend more time down at their local where the peat-coloured nectar freely flows and the moolah from Mikey’s wallet and Maura’s purse trickles steadily from till to bank to St James’s brewery. As the dark clouds of recession gather, our couple’s grip on their dwindling wads of euros becomes Charlton Heston-tight and not even an industrial pressure washer would be able to kärcheise them off their sofa and push them down the pub more than one night a week. When the full-blown crisis hits, the pub becomes as forgotten and forlorn as a lost continent as Mikey and Maura get their alcoholic thrills from ninety-nine cent cans of Gübelwaschener “Pilsner” from the aforementioned German supermarkets. But when things pick up again our couple are beating a path to their local, where the publican welcomes them with open arms and wide, joyous eyes in which the dollar sign, Bugs Bunny-like, blindingly blinks.
I’m not the first to draw parallels between the performance of an economy and the black stuff. Irish economist David McWilliams (one of the good ones) has come up with the Irish Pub Index of Economic Development. The theory goes that booming economies tend to have greater numbers of Irish bars, with those in the doldrums tending to be shamrock and Guinness wastelands. To quote from Mr McWilliams:
Luxembourg had the most Irish bars per head, and it was also the richest city in Europe. The cities with the most Irish bars in descending order matched almost exactly the richest cities and financially safest in the European income league. Even more valuable, the Irish Pub Index is predictive. The Pub Index reveals fascinating on-the-ground insights into who is spending, what brands are rocking, where investment is being made and what parts of the town are up-and-coming. In short, it tells us in advance what economic statistics will only pick up in hindsight. Over the past few years, the Irish Pub Index has proved to be a much more accurate indicator of GDP five quarters ahead of time, than any complicated IMF, World Bank or Central Bank econometric model.
To paraphrase another great thinker, Homer Simpson, who was referring to his beloved doughnuts, is there nothing Guinness cannot do?